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Kaliane Bradley on The Ministry of Time and Commander Graham Gore

Posted on 14th May 2024 by Mark Skinner

One of the year's most eagerly anticipated fiction debuts has now landed, with the publication of Kaliane Bradley's stunning The Ministry of Time. In this exclusive piece, Kaliane describes the genesis of the novel and how a certain real-life Arctic explorer became one of her central characters.  

I met Graham Gore by accident. 

In April 2021, I didn’t know anything about him, or the Franklin expedition, or polar exploration. At the time, I didn’t know very much about anything, and I kept haemorrhaging certainty from previously immutable facts. The UK was in the process of leaving the third national lockdown, and I had to check government guidelines every time I wanted to go outside. I’d started a dream job just three months before, but under pandemic rules, so I hadn’t met any of my colleagues in person or even seen my new desk. 

While in this state of punch-drunk bewilderment, I watched a TV show called The Terror, which is based on Dan Simmons’ novel The Terror, which is in turn based on the true story of Sir John Franklin’s lost 1845 expedition to the Arctic. The Terror is a superb show, and I recommend it if you haven’t watched it. It also has sixty-odd named characters and most of them are mutton-chop-sporting white men bundled up to the eyebrows to protect themselves against the Arctic cold. 

At the time I was still Googling things like ‘Are itchy fingernails a sign of covid?’ so I wasn’t at my most observant or perceptive. Part way through the first episode of The Terror, I looked up a fan wiki of the series for an episode summary, to double-check that what I thought had happened had, in fact, happened. Graham Gore – a character I had totally failed to register because he isn’t in the episode very much – was listed in the bloopers. Good name, I thought, and went to look up his Wikipedia. 

It's a great Wikipedia page, with a very dashing picture. There’s not much on there, but what there is suggests Gore was a kind, even-tempered, competent man. I was in a mental state where that was really all it took. Just imagine if this guy had to start a new job during the third national lockdown! I bet he wouldn’t cry when he couldn’t get the VPN to work! I bet it would just work for him! 

Contrary to what this cool and charismatic blog post might suggest, I’m a very anxious person. I find I’m best distracted from my anxiety if I’m fixating on something else entirely. I had a lot of spare brain space – being bashed into mental submission by multiple lockdowns will do that to you – and into that space crept a) Graham Gore b) Franklin’s Arctic expedition c) polar exploration in general.

I’m hardly the first writer to go honkers bonkers for polar exploration. Far more prestigious writers than me have got hooked on it (Margaret Atwood, Francis Spufford and Sarah Moss among them). But when I started digging around online, and found a friendly, welcoming community of amateur polar exploration buffs, I soon discovered that there were very few people indeed who were interested in Graham Gore specifically. He wasn’t anybody, except a passing mention in other people’s private letters and diaries. So, obviously, I read a lot of other people’s private letters and diaries.

This was another community effort. It wasn’t always possible for me to access archives or travel. I got to see a lot of documents because one or other of my new friends had already visited relevant archives and were generous enough to share their notes. Some out-of-copyright published texts had been digitised and were possible to access via Google Books. Paragraph by paragraph, scrap page by scrap page, an outline of a man began to form.  

Overwhelmingly, people liked Graham. Commander James Fitzjames’s pen portrait, which is on his Wikipedia page, is my most beloved, and I use it in my novel: 'a man of great stability of character, a very good officer, and the sweetest of tempers.' Sir John Franklin himself called Graham 'a treasure & a faithful friend.' He would be easy to love, I thought; he would make a very good romantic lead. 

But even more appealing, for me, were signs of Graham’s boyish, cavalier confidence. On a different Arctic expedition, ten years before Franklin’s, Graham was a mate – a junior officer below lieutenant – alongside Robert McClure. In his unpublished journal, McClure recalls:

On returning on board after a long walk […] found my messmate Gore who had been dreadfully frostbit, his feet swelling considerably & suffering the most excruciating pain, it was long before he came to […] a very little longer exposure would have caused an amputation.

The leader of that expedition, Sir George Back, recalls that later in the spring:

Our sportsman, Mr. Gores after about ten hours’ exposure on the ice, became snow-blind. 

Apparently this maniac kept ambling through the Arctic and sod the consequences. These little glimpses of a man crazily determined to do whatever he wanted dazzled me, a person who requires permission in triplicate to sneeze. I could imagine him traipsing through 21st century London, the apparent victim of a sinister government experiment, cheerfully turning the tables in his favour just to see what would happen.  

There are only two extant letters by Graham, both of which have been digitised on Arctonauts, and they were far more troubling to me than the rest of the material. Graham is funny, it’s true – describing the damp abode of a friend’s wife as fitted to be the habitation of ducks – but it’s painfully obvious how much he unquestioningly supports the military colonialist projects of the British Empire. This became a thorn at the heart of The Ministry of Time: what would a Victorian naval officer make of post-colonial Britain? What would it mean for my narrator to love him? And where could a relationship like that go?

The Ministry of Time grew out of guessing who Graham might have become, had he lived, and where I couldn’t guess, inventing him wholesale. I will admit that I cheated a little. While I was locked up in my house, writing the first version of the book, I lived with – and still live with – my partner, a calm, kind man who was amused by and supportive of my demented polar-inspired project. There are a number of jokes cracked in the book that I have simply stolen from him. The result was that, although I met Graham Gore by accident, I think he holds a lot of deliberate truth, from my life and from his own. I hope you will enjoy meeting him. 

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